It Takes a Real Dame to Show Brutus' Force Harriet Walter and Phyllida Lloyd Talk All-Female Julius Caesar

By Harry Haun
04 Nov 2013

Phyllida Lloyd
There is another scene in which Lloyd shows us a vicious side of Caesar that we (and the on-the-fence Brutus) don't usually see — when he brutally force-feeds the "lean and hungry" Cassius a donut. "Sometimes, more often than not, Caesar is played as quite a dignified old man and you wonder, 'Why do they want to kill this guy?' Historically, he was, by that time, a dictator. Life in Rome was very hard for the political elite who had been robbed of their powers. The general public was still very pro-Caesar, because he went out of his way to please them and pay them well and give them a good life. He knew how to win the public towards him, but the political elite realized that the ideals of the republic had been sold out. It was a revolution from the top and didn't really go down to the bottom. I'm very grateful to both Frances Barber and Phyllida Lloyd for creating quite a monster in Caesar, so you feel, 'Yes, I can see why Brutus would feel a justification for murdering him.'"

She found arguing man-to-man particularly difficult to do as a woman, citing the angry face-off between Brutus and Cassius. "It's a brilliant scene, but it is one of the most unusual scenes for women to play. Usually, when women have an argument on stage, it's more oblique or dressed up in sarcasm or more emotionally blackmailing. To be able to do a male head-on and then the next minute the embracing and saying, 'All is forgiven' — it seems to me that that is almost the best of male relationships, which women can't always achieve. And that feels very strange — to be literally facing off, shouting in the face of somebody, then forgiving — it's really quite a conflict. If it were two females arguing like that, they'd never speak again."

For Walter, the hardest thing about this production was not letting her performance get lost in the constant chaos and spectacle. "Because we spent so much time on the improvisations around the prison life, getting a real strong belief in ourselves as a community and working on the choreography in the big set pieces, there was limited time for what I call 'two-handers' and to learn the chunks of lines that I have. I think Brutus has the most to say, so I found the time I had to work on my own, getting behind his dilemma, getting behind what he truly thinks of Caesar."

This is a parsimoniously abridged Julius Caesar, constructed so it can be consumed in a single, pain-free sitting. "We shuffled it around and cut bits of it," Walter said. "Mainly, we cut characters who had only one scene and really didn't add much to the play, so their character might be subsumed in another character, or a little line might be lifted out of a scene that was cut altogether and placed in another part of the play. I think lots of people take those liberties with Shakespeare because we like to get things done quicker. Our version is two hours and five minutes, and I admire the audience sitting. It moves fast, and that helps. Again, that's Phyllida's doing."